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Published: Saturday, 12/20/2008

Saving Somalia

ACTION by the United Nations Security Council to authorize stronger measures against Somali pirates may make nearby seas, at least on the face of it, safer for international traffic.

At the same time, there are problems in the new approach that could neuter its practical effect.

Piracy in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean off the Somali coast, the longest for a single nation in Africa, is getting worse. More vessels are being attacked and those held by pirates in ports in that lawless land are becoming harder to free. Noteworthy among them is a large oil tanker and a cargo ship containing 33 Russian-model T-72 battle tanks.

An international flotilla with vessels from the United States, European nations and, now, China has been assembled to try to assure the safe passage of ships past Somalia. There were problems with the authority of the armed forces on those ships to pursue the pirates into their ports, but they have been addressed, in principle, by a U.N. Security Council resolution.

But it still leaves at least three problems. The first is the magnitude of the area within which the pirates operate; even a flotilla with radar and helicopters will find it hard to cover. The second is that the permission of a virtually nonexistent Somali transitional government is required before pursuit of the pirates into port and on land is permitted. The latest news there is that the president has fired the prime minister and the parliament has called his action illegal.

The third problem is that some nations may have forgotten the miserable experience of the 1992-95 military intervention into Somalia. U.S. forces were driven out by the casualties they took in the 1993 "Black Hawk Down" incident. U.N. forces were withdrawn in 1995 after it concluded that their presence in Somalia was useless and dangerous.

The real answer is for the United States and the world to support the reassertion of authority in Somalia by the former Islamic Courts government, which now controls most of the country, and make that recognition conditional upon a pledge from the government to put the pirates out of business. A step toward that would be to provide no encouragement to the Ethiopian troops now occupying part of Somalia to stay after Dec. 31, the date they have announced for withdrawal.

The key to the solution of the Somalia problem remains the establishment of a competent government there, missing since January, 1991.

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